[Full disclosure: I approach and appreciate sacred music as a knowledgeable ex-believer and composer, an enthusiastic student of music history with a deep interest in context and connection, as well as a passionate lifelong discophile.]
The Music of Passiontide
Where narrative works for the Christmas season often tend towards lambent tableaux or the evocation of simple childlike sentiment, compositions for Passiontide can be much more emotionally complex, essentially mature, innately dramatic, and often expressly designed to call forth a wrenching visceral response. Where Christmas music touches a listener's heart, music for Holy Week often very intentionally punches audiences in the collective gut. There is a rich repertory for this season, centering on a handful of traditional texts; the passion and crucifixion narratives from the four Gospels including the so-called "seven words from the cross", various sections from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the ancient Latin hymn Stabat Mater, which traditionally accompanies recitation of the Stations of the Cross during Lent and Holy Week. [Note: music related to the liturgy of Holy Thursday is outside the scope of this article.]
While many listeners will certainly be familiar with the Bach passions or Handel's Messiah, the Haydn Seven Words, Stainer's The Crucifiction, or even some of the Bruckner motets, there is a wide and wondrous realm of mostly unexplored repertory that ought to be better know. Thus, I offer the following discography for consideration.
13 Great Records for Holy Week
Naxos 8.557149 (2003)
Penderecki St. Luke Passion
Antoni Witt/Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra
Penderecki's 1966 avant-garde masterpiece receives a reverent performance that never lacks for dramatic impact or emotional profundity. Witt's supercharged reading with the top-flight Warsaw Philharmonic forces is nigh-on to definitive, and the recorded sound is stunning. Not to be missed!
Cedile CDR 90000 051 (2000)
Frank Ferko: Stabat Mater
Anne Heider/Nancy Gustafson (soprano)/His Majestie's Clerkes
Though less-well-known than near-contemporaries Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre, the American composer Frank Ferko (born 1950) is among the most gifted and consistently inspired choral stylists of our time, and this extraordinarily beautiful, lyrically introspective, sometimes overwhelming work is very probably his masterpiece. Employing verses from the traditional Latin hymn as a basic framework, Ferko sets a number of loosely related English texts to flesh out the broad, overarching structure of the work, poems relating to the joy and anguish of motherhood. In what must surely be a "dream" performance captured in impeccable sound, Anne Heider and Her Majestie's Clerkes bring this stunning a cappella work to full, resonant, glorious life. Unhesitatingly recommended!
Carus 83.262 (2-disc set, Hybrid Super-Audio) (2007)
Gottfried August Homilius: Passion Cantata
Fritz Näf/Basler Madrigalisten/Düsseldorfer Hofmusik
Gottfried August Homilius (1714-1785) was a gifted pupil of J.S. Bach, and long-time kappelmeister at the Kreuz- and Frauen- kirches in Dresden. As with so many of his contemporaries, including several of Bach's own sons, Homilius has fallen through the stylistic cracks of history; born a bit too early to be considered a full-blown Classicist, nor a textbook example of the Gallant, yet too late to be comfortably included in the waning Baroque school either. Thus, his music is often eclectic, reflecting many sometimes-conflicting influences, from Bach and Handel to Haydn and the early Mannheim school. Nonetheless, the music is always accessibly melodious, graceful and charming (if occasionally approaching quaintness). In the last few years, the German Carus label has released an impressive series of recordings, making the best possible case for this unjustly neglected master. In addition to the marvelous St. Mark Passion (Carus 83.260 (2013)) and a very fine setting of the St. John Passion (Carus 83.261 (2007)) (both enthusiastically recommended) Homilius' lyrical and poignant Passion Cantata gets a first-rate performance captured in glorious SACD sound.
Telarc CD 80362 (1994)
Szymonowski: Stabat Mater Op. 53
Poulenc: Stabat Mater
Robert Shaw/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
An inspired pairing of two utterly different, yet equally impressive settings of the Stabat Mater. Shaw's interpretation of Szymonowski's 1926 masterpiece is aptly dramatic, incisive, and memorable in impact, with Telarc's wide-open sound capturing the performance in all its fearsome poignancy, ineluctable raw emotion, and anguished glory. The urbane, buoyantly eclectic Poulenc setting from 1950 with its seemingly-insouciant dance rhythms hard by its searing choral pathos gets an appropriately reverent reading, never straying into the hazard of sardonic artifice or bijou sentimentality, traps into which a lesser interpreter might easily fall. This is a treasurable disc.
CPO 999-560-2 (2-disc set) (1998)
Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel: Brockes Passion
Ludger Rémy/Michaelstein Chamber Choir & Telemann Orchestra
Barthold Heinrich Brockes' 1712 devotional "re-imagining" of the passion story was set by many composers including Handel, Telemann, Keiser, Mattheson, and Fasch. Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel's marvelously subtle 1725 setting is an intimately scaled masterpiece, one of those unjustly hidden gems, too-long overdue for recognition. Ludger Rémy's immediately-lovable reading is convincing in every way; gorgeously sung and played, impeccably paced, bewitchingly lyrical, and unfailingly expressive. The CPO label (which did as much for Stölzel in the closing years of the 20th Century as Carus has for Homilius since the beginning of the new Millennium) here offers its typically first-rate recorded sound. Highly recommended!
DaCapo 8.204035 (4-disc box set) (2011)
Heinrich Schütz: The Complete Narrative Works
Auferstehungshistorie (The Resurrection Story) SWV 450
The Seven Words of Christ on the Cross SWV 478
St. Matthew Passion SWV 479
St. Luke Passion SWV 480
St. John Passion SWV 481
(also includes Wienachtshistorie (The Christmas Story) SWV 435)
Paul Hillier/Ars Nova Copenhagen
This fabulous set is an overflowing cup of miraculous music and glorious music-making. From the breathtakingly affecting lyricism of the choruses with their ingeniously expressive polyphonic scene-painting, to the direct dramatic power and heartbreaking beauty of the brief arioso sections, Schütz' narrative works for Passiontide are essential pillars of the repertory, worthy to stand alongside the greatest works of the Renaissance and Baroque. Particularly fine, here, are the sublime St. John Passion SWV 481, and the more-often-heard but no-less stunning Seven Words of Christ on the Cross SWV 478, both works of the composer's old age, both marvels of melodic inventiveness and structural economy. Admittedly the extended narrative solo sections in the St. Luke and St. Matthew settings may at times approach the ponderous with the choruses and ariosi at once providing a certain relief as well as a tautening of needful dramatic tension. Though no less serious in intent, the Auferstehungshistorie (The Resurrection Story) SWV 450 makes an interesting contrast to the more somber passion narratives, with the evangelist finally given some substantial melodic material to work with. Hillier's interpretations are consistently magnificent, as one might well expect, the Ars Nova Copenhagen ensemble enthusiastically responsive to his masterly direction, unerringly fine, fully committed and invariably convincing. The recorded sound from Germany's always-interesting DaCapo is first-rate.
Hänssler Profil PH04027 (3-disc set) (2005)
Frank Martin: Golgotha (1945-48)
(also includes In Terra Pax (1944) conducted by Marcello Viotti)
Ulf Schirmer/Choir of the Bavarian Radio SO/Munich Radio SO
From a series of live performances recorded by Bavarian Radio in 2000 and 2002, this album includes three extraordinary works by the still too-little-known Swiss composer, Frank Martin (1890-1974). Golgotha will undoubtedly be the most familiar of the three, a large-scale work firmly in the tradition of the great passion oratorios, incarnated with the colorful dramatic idioms and rich harmonic language of the 20th Century. The music spans an enormous emotional gamut, from profound personal introspection to the raw anger of a mob. Pilate from 1964 is a rarely-heard gem, offering an intriguing alternate perspective on the familiar Good Friday narrative. Alas, Hänssler provides only a slim booklet with scanty notes in German, no libretti, and no translations. Aural perspective in these good-but-not-great concert recordings can be inconsistent, with the chorus generally too far to the back of the cavernous hall, and the soloists too far forward--or sometimes vice-versa! There are certainly better recordings of Golgotha to be found, but collectors in search of Pilate have no practical alternative. (The performance of In Terra Pax is superb.)
Alto (Musical Concepts) ALC 1142 (2013 re-issue)
Palestrina: Lamentations of Jeremiah Book IV
Bruno Turner/Pro Cantione Antiqua
Stunning performances of one of Palestrina's ever-adept, affectingly lucid Lamentations settings--this the last of four. The Pro Cantione Antiqua made some its finest recordings under Bruno Turner in the early 1980s, and these Palestrina readings have been re-issued a number of times since, most recently on the UK budget label Regis (1038 (2013)) as well as part of a four-disc box set from 2011 (Brilliant Classics 94266). The Alto/Musical Concepts re-issue sounds better than ever, although quality control on the pressing itself is abysmal, with LP-like clicks, pops, and surface distortion which can impede proper playback. Seek out an earlier iteration of this album if possible, but seek it out nonetheless.
Globe GLO 5175 (1998)
Hugo Distler: Choral Passion Op. 7:
Totentanz (Dance of Death)
Uwe Gronostay/Netherlands Chamber Choir
One could hardly wish for a finer recording of Distler's glorious a cappella masterwork. Written when Distler was only 24, the Opus 7 Choral Passion from 1932 has the spare gravitas and ingenious structural economy of Schütz coupled with the elegant harmonic grammar and direct expressive potency of Hindemith. Uwe Gronostay and the world-class Netherlands Chamber Choir offer a thoroughly engaging performance. Not to be missed!
Hyperion CDA66321 (1981)
Hyperion CDD22012 (2-disc set) (1997 re-issue)
Alto (Musical Concepts) ALC 1123 (2011 re-issue)
Lassus: Lamentations of Jeremiah
Bruno Turner/Pro Cantione Antiqua
Lassus' gorgeous setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah is a pinnacle of the late-Renaissance polyphonic repertory. It receives an appropriately moving interpretation from Bruno Turner in his heyday with the Pro Cantione Antiqua on this 1981 outing from Hyperion, featuring the great label's stunning, limpid digital sound. Serious collectors may be somewhat wary of this 2011 re-issue from Alto/Musical Concepts, given the super-budget label's quality-control issues. As with Turner's Palestrina recordings (#8 above) the best advice is to seek out a good used copy of the original Hyperion CD.
Alto (Musical Concepts) ALC 1269 (re-issue from Conifer (1990))
Victoria: Easter Week: Lamentations & Tenebrae Responses
Richard Marlow/Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
Along with Palestrina and Lassus, Tomas Luis de Victoria was one of the greatest polyphonists of the latter 16th Century. The Spanish composer's haunting liturgical settings for Passiontide are an indispensable staple of the sacred choral repertory, and these performances, featuring a fine mixed ensemble do them memorable justice. Originally released on the British Conifer label in 1990, this lovely record gets a second life at a budget price on Alto. Recommended.
MSR Classics MS 1251 (2008)
Ginestera: Lamentations of Jeremiah
Kent Tritle/The Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola
"Mainstream" commercial releases of Ginestera's glorious Lamentations have been few to none over the decades. The Dale Warland Singers recorded it on an early digital LP, never subsequently re-issued (A Choral Mosaic (Augsburg 231454 (1980)), and there have been one or two performances from collegiate ensembles including a lackluster reading by the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel Choir under Randi von Ellefson (Arsis CD 139 (2002)). Yet, this superlative live reading from the small MSR label begs the question, why isn't this truly great work better known? The setting of the Vulgate Latin text is a product of Ginestera's early Argentine nationalist period, redolent of gaucho culture, the wide-open pampas, and galloping machismo. (To be perfectly blunt, the piece requires a level of testosterone and interpretive courage not readily available in the average university chorus.) Tritle's searing, hard-driving, full-blown, sharply articulated interpretation admirably captures the shattering spirit of the music; the semi-professional adult choral ensemble is first-rate, aptly passionate and gutsy, while the well-balanced recorded sound is pleasingly warm and natural with the chorus miced at just the right distance. Highly recommended.
Chandos CHAN 0775 (2010)
Buxtehude: Membra Jesu Nostri BuxWV 75
The Purcell Quartet/Emma Kirkby/Michael Chance et al.
Exquisite singing and playing, impeccably executed, iridescent, ravishingly expressive, and deeply moving, this is a near-perfect record. Kirkby, Chance, and the Purcell Quartet bring a lyric ecstasy to Buxtehude's 1680 group of intimate passion cantatas, a series of devotional reflectionsin Latin on the various parts of the crucified body of Jesus. Buxtehude's sunny melodic outlook often tends to belie the somewhat gory essence of the texts. Unhesitatingly recommended!